Adulting: Small-talk and Silence

I was at a creative writing reading the other night at a professor of mine’s house. My friend and I are undergraduate creative writing majors and imagine the stiffness of our walks as we entered our professor’s homes and found a living room full of adults drinking beers from the bottle, cups of whisky in their hands perhaps and all of them clearly over 21. My friend and I are clearly the youngest of the bunch.

We engage in small talk with a hipster looking man in his early thirties, as a pixie of a woman goes off to get us cups of water with a wedge of lime. The man we speak of is a professor as well, in the middle of his PhD program in creative writing. We talk about where we’re all from, what my friend and I are majoring in and what we want to do with our degrees. We wind up talking about comic books and I know my knowledge is immediately dwarfed by this man.  He’s been reading since the ’80s. He names off writers and artists off the top of his head, pulling them out of his sleeves like a magic trick. A few other men join the conversation and under the eyes of these older men with their drinks in hand and their careers in my chosen field I feel smaller and younger than ever before.

I am a big proponent that not only can no one make you feel inferior without your consent, but that no one can make you feel anything without your consent. I was letting these men somehow bully me into silence without them even having to say one off-hand comment. I just knew my opinion was valued less. And yes, I know I can’t support this. I know I can’t, and won’t, blame this on the men in that room. It’s me and my gender socialization that tells me I need to put on a front to be “cool” and “confident” and above all not a feminist.

So, when the conversation breaks off and the men are clearly talking amongst themselves I sip my lime-water and refuse to sit down though the men in the conversation are all seated and have been for a few minutes. I listen. The men talk about the Juicy Brand of pants where the backside reads “JUICY.” The man who knows about comic books says he sees a woman wearing that and he automatically has no respect for her.

This is a man in higher education! This is a man who is dealing with women of all types and styles of dress every single day and he can sit there on the couch, drink his beer and generalize about his respect for “those women.” He knows his opinion will be safe. I feel the words biting at my tongue. Oh, I want to tell this man that he doesn’t know anything about a woman by her style of dress and that I find that comment offensive and derogatory.

I take a long sip of my water to keep myself silent. My only victory is that I don’t laugh or smile at his comment like the other men. I look at my friend who shrugs slightly and I don’t know what the means.

The reading hasn’t started yet and already I feel exhausted by the pressure to be “cool” and not a feminist.

The entire evening I felt like I was putting on a production. I had to at once appear a calm, collected adult (even as I told the man asking for donations for beer that I wasn’t old enough to drink). an up-and-coming young writer who wanted to get noticed, and someone who knew how to nod approvingly at whatever anyone else in the room said even if I disagreed. There was an unspoken rule not to rock the boat. I couldn’t be a feminist. I couldn’t voice any disagreements. Everyone around me had to right and knowledgeable about what they said to keep up the illusion surrounding the event of a young up-and-coming writers’ club. They were all in MFA’s or PhD programs. They were all in my field of study as writers themselves. I couldn’t rock the boat and challenge them, even on trivial matters.

No, I had to nod my head and mutter my agreement to keep up my end of the small-talk. When I did speak I asked various men I met (there were very few women at the event) about their professions. Their degrees. Their lives. I kept the focus off myself like a good-little girl.

Is this what adult life is like? Putting on a facade and smiling and nodding when your head is bursting with responses? I feel so confident in my feminism and then I step into the real world outside my college campus. The hardest thing about being a feminist is learning to speak up. As an adult, what I need the most in my life isn’t a fancy degree or published books to my name, but the strongest voice I can muster telling whoever I meet that I am a feminist. I am a woman who is unashamed of being a woman. And I don’t care who I am forced to have small-chat with, because retreating into silence is the worst harm I think I’ve ever caused my body.

I’ve been meaning to write on the Trayvon Martin case since the final verdict of the Zimmerman trial was announced. I haven’t yet written though because I didn’t know what to say that hadn’t already been said. Even now I don’t think I can speak about the trial itself, but I can speak about my own experience.

Although I was born and raised in Connecticut, a state which claims to be very democratic, liberal and open minded, my home town was full of racism. We were-and still are if I were to go back-a place of hypocrisy. Most of my home town voted for Obama and therefore they feel they are free of racial bias. It doesn’t matter that out of 5,000 students in my high school barely ten percent (maybe) were people of color. No one noticed or thought to question that the upper level AP and honors level classes were only filled with white students. This was the natural order of things, we told ourselves. Of course, we never bothered to analyze our privilege at all.

White privilege was not a concept because it was a lifestyle. It was everything I grew up surrounded by. My brother filled my head with football statistics of how white players are discriminated against for being white, how more black men are in jail than in college and commenting on the lower intelligence of black men as evidenced by some test to get into the NFL. I never bothered to check his facts and I half heartedly debated him because I knew there was something wrong with his logic, but could never put my finger on it. Or I was too afraid to call him out as being racist when I was just as guilty. We never thought to question why the world appeared to us through such a white lens.

My mother never spoke of race. It was somehow known to me that I shouldn’t have black friends, watch black tv shows like the Proud Family for instance, or listen to music by black artists. It was never outright stated, but if I didn’t get it from my mom then I got as if through osmosis by living in a majority white and insulated town.

Is it so difficult to believe then that even though I attend an open minded liberal arts college where a primary focus is diversity and tolerance, that I packed my bigoted views in my suitcase along with my clothes?

When Trayvon was first shot, I had the opportunity to attend a student held event by the Black Student Association on our campus discussing Trayvon’s murder and it’s racial implications. I was on the staff of the newspaper and was given the option to cover this campus event and I declined. I didn’t even go to the event. My excuses were many: I didn’t know enough about the issue, it was an event for black students I wouldn’t be accepted, it was an event for black students why should I care?

At the top of my list though was the most brutally honest and terrible reason: I didn’t care. All I knew was that a black teenager had been shot. Everything I grew up knowing screamed at me that this was a common occurrence because black people get shot every day living their hoodlum gang lifestyles. Trayvon’s death was therefore not only natural, but expected. It would be somehow immoral of me to attend an event when I already knew what side I stood on: the white side.

A year and a half later though and I’m able to see that there isn’t a white side and a black side. There is a racist and bigoted side and there is the side of equality. Perhaps this simplifies things too much, but from where I stand right now you are either pro-human rights or against them. I do not see how there can be a middle ground. If I am going to have the courage to stand up and say that women should be equal in all ways to men, then I better have the courage to look at my own privilege as a white woman.

Oppression is oppression is oppression. I know that I will never need to deal with racism in the same way people of color do and I do not claim that my experience fighting for feminism can ever give me the insight to speak on racial oppression as someone who experiences it first hand. But I do see my privilege and I know that it is wrong for me to be treated better by the color of my skin. I know that things will only change if we rid our minds of white vs colored and focus on opening up our minds to look at ourselves and what we can accomplish.

I know that I can’t do anything for Trayvon. I know that I can’t say anything here which will make up for his death or for the white privilege America prescribes to which allows his murderer to walk free. But I also know that I can look back on my past and see my mistakes and know how to change them so I can fight on the side of human rights. I know where I stand now.

We are Trained to Take Sexism

It’s been almost a year since I discovered that I’m a feminist and have actively taken the route to pursue what this means. During the course of this year I’ve noticed all levels of sexism, from women hating on women, to being told it’s a man’s world, to people who try to invalidate me because of my sex. There comes a point where you think that even if you haven’t seen it all, then at least you have a good idea of the sexism that pours out of people’s mouths and that maybe you even have a response ready.

I’m always surprised by what people will say, but I’m even more surprised by how much I won’t say in response. I think I have my responses, and I know I know what I stand for, but I find myself freezing up.

Today a man in his early twenties had a conversation with me about how I don’t have a car and can’t get to a movie theatre close by. He told me to take public transit and then rethought his answer. He corrected himself: “Then again, I wouldn’t want to be a little girl walking in those areas by myself.”

What?

It took me a moment to process this because it came out of nowhere. This man is maybe two years older than I am. He would never say something like this to a man, but he said it so casually too that he didn’t even stop to think that he just called me a child.

And I didn’t have a response because suddenly everything I could have said felt weak and invalid because this is how I’ve been trained to think. This is how all women are trained: you do not contradict a man.

I now have a clearer idea of where my feminism needs to go. Now that I see sexism clearly in my own life and in the world scene as well, I need to make the same conscious effort to not just see it but give voice to it.

You Know Your Country’s Racist When…

Though this sounds like the opening to a bad joke, or a top ten list you might scan through to get a quick laugh, I think it’s time people stopped laughing at racism. Even people who still admit racism exists won’t always stand up to stop it, or will laugh along with the crowd. I’m just as guilty of this myself, but my experience as a canvasser this summer is opening my eyes to see that racism isn’t always as simple as hateful words or scornful thoughts and glances. A lot of the time, racism is the system of oppression which perpetuates the verbal and non-verbal hate that is deemed worthy of media attention as true racism.

But I’m out canvassing in areas of Atlanta like Virginia Highlands or East Atlanta and I’m seeing first hand that hate speech is a by-product of economic injustice and social inequality. When I was in Virgian Highlands, the houses would alternate between three tiered miniature mansion houses where people could freely write out checks for $60, and broken down shacks of unmowed lawns, broken screens to cover their front doors, and people who are out of work. 

This wasn’t every experience-I did run into a lot of white people who were also out of work, and some black families who were well off-but a majority of the time, the white people lived in the fancy houses and the people of color lived in the shacks. This was described to me as a mixed income neighborhood.

These are not people you can reasonably ask for money and a few weeks ago I was called out as being racist by a black man who asked why I skipped his house on my way down his street. He asked me flat out, “Do you just not go to the houses of colored folks?” His house was on my list and I did skip over it because I knew I would not be able to get a contribution. I was being racist and falling into this system of oppression because it was easy to do so. Though I was mortified and angry at being called out on my behavior I’m glad someone was willing to tell me my actions were complete bull shit. No one else was going to do it so I’m glad someone had the guts to.

I can’t pretend to speak from the experience of a person of color, but from my own experience, even just as a specatator, I know this is wrong. This is why racism exists: people see the poverty of black people and other people of color and think that because it is so prevalent in certain areas that therefore it is natural. White supremacy has to come from somewhere and I see it as stemming from the economic injustices that appear so mundane it’s sickening.

The past few days I’ve been in Ansley Park and this is an area of mansions. In the two days I’ve been there, I have spoken to one black family who told me that they didn’t own the house but were renting it. Every other person I spoke to or encountered on the street was white. Aside from the mansions this reminds me of my own home town and how ignorant I was of other cultures and the sytematic oppression which keeps white people at the top. If you grow up in an all-white neighborhood you don’t even think about racism and this is perhaps the most dangerous pit fall: ignorance that the problem exists at all.

And it is a problem! This is not just what I’ve seen demographically going from house to house, but that if the police get called on our organization for soliciting, there is a much higher chance the call will be in regards to a black male canvasser.

There is an irrational fear of people of color and fear is just another form of hatred. I know people who claim that because they don’t actively insult people of color they are not racist. But they are racist because they treat people of color differently and there is never any justification for it.

Any push for economic justice-living wage jobs, equal pay for equal work regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation-will wake people up to the fact that poverty is no one’s natural state and never will be.  When people of color are given the right to the same opportunities as white people that’s when white neighborhoods will expand to include other races and mixed income areas will no longer mean rich white neighborhood speckled with colored people in poverty. People need to see the injustice  and recognize that there is nothing natural about racism or oppression.

Even Suicide is Sexist

I’ve been away at a Leadership Conference for the past few days so I have not had the chance to write as much as I would have wanted, but while at the Conference I learned a lot of interesting facts about how far sexism is ingrained in the world.

I also learned how sexism can skew the reasoning behind data.

Part of the Conference was a series of lectures. One of which, QPR (question, persuade, refer) dealt with suicide prevention.

 

A lot of data was talked about with what groups were most likely to complete suicide and a lot of statistics came up about the differences between male and female suicides. The most up to date information is the  data of 2009 (there is no up to date data for 2012 or even 2011 for the United States) but the information we were given at the Conference was from 2007. The data listed below is  from the conference.

  • Men are 4x more likely to complete suicide than women
  • women are 2-3x more likely to attempt suicide than men
  • women are more likely to attempt due to relationship problems are more likely to use less violent means of death (pills and poisonings)
  • men are more likely to use more violent means (hangings and firearms)

The leaders of the workshop asked us to insert our opinions as to why this data is so. It’s unfortunate but the information seems to be supporting classic stereotypes that women are the weaker of the species, have less conviction in the actions, and do not have testosterone so they are naturally less violent and aggressive. This is only surface level analysis and can barely be considered analysis at all.

Why are men more likely to complete suicide than women? They are less likely to talk about their feelings for one thing, being raised in a sexist society where men can never be feminine, and another is that if they use more violent means then of course they are more likely to succeed. How often do you shoot a bullet through your head and live?

Which makes the next question why are men more likely to use such violence? The answer is that it’s more culturally acceptable. When violence makes you a man of course it is going to impact every decision you make, even the decision to kill yourself. In addition, who is more likely to own a gun or know how to tie a noose, a man or a woman? A man of course. Men have the means to kill themselves in such a way and women do not. There is nothing biological about it.

The same goes for why more women attempt but do not complete suicide. When they do not have access to the aggressive means of men how can it be expected that pills will always finish the job? Also, of course if a woman does not complete then she has attempted, which explains why the attempts are so high for women. As for women killing themselves over relationships this is just as rooted in culture as everything else. Women are taught to value themselves based on their relationships whether with friends or with spouse and to place so much stock in their ability to maintain these relationships. When things go awry and those connections are all a woman is taught to value about herself what else does she have? According to data, not enough to live for.

There is nothing biology that makes women inferior to men. Women are equal. Society is not.

This blog is dedicated to anyone who has ever overcome suicide, or known someone who has killed themselves.